My Fraught Relationship with Technology
To begin, I am kind of a weird dude. I do not have a smartphone. I did not have a cell phone in high school, or in college until the study abroad coordinator went on a safety rant during my final semester. Even then, I resisted texting for a few years. I made a brief foray into the smartphone world before exiting in frustration after the phone slowed down.
At the same time, I have always loved technology. I remember my dad setting up our first Gateway computer and playing countless games of DigDug. I took a few computer programming courses and majored in Physics. By the time I had finished my Masters in Education and become a teacher, I was using spreadsheets heavily and hacking together scripts to grade my students’ assignments. I ended up teaching other teachers how to use technology in the classroom.
As a teacher, I was constantly cajoled to use technology in the classroom, and administration pushed us to redefine our roles since “students now carry all of the world’s knowledge in their pockets.” Nevermind that they do not dip into the world’s knowledge very often. In The Distracted Mind, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen argue that, “this has been studied extensively, with researchers linking nearly every type of in-class technology use-including email, texting, laptop, social media, and more-to decreased classroom performance, regardless of how that performance is measured (grades, work productivity, etc.), and across all grade levels ranging from elementary school to college.” (1)
In fact, I began to realize, my students, the supposed “digital natives”, were not tech savvy at all. Sure, they could use the Instagram and Snapchat apps, but those apps are designed to be easy to use. If they needed to use technology to build models describing data, convert files from one format to another, or even navigate their own devices, they were slow if capable at all.
Eventually, I left teaching to become a web developer. The culture was totally different. Whereas teachers had mistrusted technology (imagine 30+ pubescent teens beginning to squirm when your projector bulb burns out), developers trusted it implicitly. Teachers bragged about how hard they worked; developers prided themselves on laziness, obsessively scripting away slow processes. I began to wonder who was right. How do we decide to use or not use technology? For the most part, we do not decide. We end up using the technology our peers use and hardly ever do a real assessment of what different technologies add or subtract from our lives. Many of us rely on what Cal Newport calls the “Any-Benefit Approach”, where “you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use.”(3) Given that Nielson reported in 2014 that we now spend 60 hours per week on digital devices (4), it is time to take another hard look at how our technology suite supports or works against our values. In this blog, I will share my own experiments in getting technology to work for me. I will leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, Chaos or Community (2):
Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that suggestive phrase of Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end.” This is the serious predicament, the deep haunting problem, confronting modern man. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the external of man’s nature subjugates the internal, dark storm clouds begin to form.
Western civilization is particularly vulnerable at this moment, for our material abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit. An Asian writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:
[You call your thousand material devices “labor-saving machinery,” yet you are forever “busy.” With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else … your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.] … This does not mean that we must turn back the clock of scientific progress. No one can overlook the wonders that science has wrought for our lives. The automobile will not abdicate in favor of the horse and buggy, or the train in favor of the stagecoach, or the tractor in favor of the hand plow, or the scientific method in favor of ignorance and superstition. But our moral and spiritual “lag” must be redeemed. When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our day of doom.
Gazzaley, A. & Rosen, L. (2016). The distracted mind : ancient brains in a high-tech world. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
King, M., King, C. & Harding, V. (2010). Where do we go from here : chaos or community. Boston: Beacon Press.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work : rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Report, T. (2017). The U.S. Digital Consumer Report . Nielsen.com. Retrieved 14 June 2017, from http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2014/the-us-digital-consumer-report.html